It’s not Confucius or Sun Tzu, but China’s homegrown Machiavelli, Han Fei, who guides and inspires the thinking of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Frequently peppering his speeches with Han Fei’s legalist school of philosophy, Xi Jinping's favourite philosopher once said, “It is not difficult to know a thing; what is difficult is to know how to use what you know.”
As the Chinese manipulate their way into fructifying the neologism of ‘Chinese Century’ (Zhongguo shiji), the oft-contradictory actions of the Chinese regime never fail to confound and shock the world with the expected and the unexpected, in equal measure. Deception is key – what is said is often not meant, and what is sometimes done is never spoken about!
What is clear is that the Chinaman makes copious amounts of notes pertaining to global events – the forever austere and wise Chinaman seeks to learn from others’ mistakes.
As the Chinese Proverb goes, “A fool never learns from his mistakes. A smart man learns from his own mistakes. But a wise man learns from the mistakes of others.”
Overstepping Could Be Just as Costly as Inaction
From the implosion of the Soviet Union, the Gulf Wars, the Arab Spring, the Afghanistan-Pakistan quagmire, and the Ukrainian war, to just about any event that could afford invaluable lessons, for the Chinaman, nothing is insignificant. Perhaps this explains the widely believed fable, of the Chinese thinking decades ahead in terms of governance diplomacy.
The world waits with bated breath for China to explain what it really means by inflicting its suggested ‘pain’ in Taiwan that is ‘real and lasting’ – does it mean a full-fledged invasion towards the ‘final resolution’ of the One-China principle, or will it be a series of actions that fall short of that?
With its back to the wall in terms of the first-mover advantage, which has been usurped by its nemesis, the US, in the game of optics and one-upmanship, ‘no reaction’ is not an option for Xi Jinping. A perpetually insecure leader of a single-party regime (for over 75 years) cannot afford to look enfeebled, defeated or indecisive in the eyes of its Chinese citizenry. Yet, the temptation to go flat out must be tempered with Han Fei’s sage words, “know how to use what you know”. Nuance is key, as overstepping could be just as costly as inaction.
Some Recent Events
Sabre-rattling and aggressive posturing aside, the Chinese reaction to the provocative Nancy Pelosi visit to Taiwan recently will be guided by learnings from the recent geo-political events and their hard consequences.
The events may seem unrelated, but for the ‘note-taking’ Chinese, there are priceless lessons therein:
The US abandons Afghanistan after 20 years – all the military firepower, technology, tactics and even numbers (over 1,00,000 boots-on-ground at one time) came to naught against a ragtag militia of a landlocked country.
Russia runs itself into a veritable swamp in Ukraine after promising a ‘lightning-fast military action’ – it has been close to six months and the mighty Russian superpower is showing signs of atrophying with time.
Removing ‘unfriendly’ leadership like Muammar Gadhafi or Saddam Hussein is relatively easy, yet it guarantees no meaningful change in the essential narrative.
Inevitable sanctioning of Russia to ‘impose clear economic and political costs’ led to a freezing of $315 billion forex, free fall of the Russian Ruble from 76 a US dollar to a shocking 158, within a couple of months. While the impact of sanctions has certainly weakened now, the initial ‘shock’ to the Russian ecosystem was undeniable.
Deadly face-off along the Line of Actual Control on the Indo-Sino sides results in a spirited, bloody and blunt Indian reaction that accounts for undeclared Chinese casualties, after the initial Chinese moves.
A Hellfire R9X missile fired from an unmanned drone hits a downtown Kabul compound and ‘takes out’ dreaded terrorist Ayman al-Zawahiri, affording bragging rights to President Joe Biden that ‘we will, we can, and we’ll always make good on the solemn pledge’
Six Lessons for China
One, the cost of any full-out ground ‘offensive’ action against any foreign land is increasingly prohibitive, unsustainable, and never commensurate with any strategic counter gains.
Two, the ability to hold physical ground (as opposed to controlling the skies) is next to impossible; the war of attrition is frighteningly brutal and tipped in favour of the defender.
Three, retaliation to belligerence or expansionism in the form of crippling ‘sanctions’ is imminent and extremely costly, especially in the fragile post-pandemic world.
Four, Caving in without a fight to a larger opponent is just not possible, especially for democracies, as it spells the death knell for the leadership therein. Retaliation is always guaranteed.
Five, targeted attacks to ‘take out’ high-profile targets, without risking larger stakes and yet ensuring the ‘higher ground’, is possible.
Six, careful combination of socio-economic-military-diplomatic pressure without going the whole hog, is possible and usually effective, in the long run.
All the 'Shock and Awe'
Clearly, there are enough insights for China to desist from attacking Taiwan, despite intimidatory language like ‘ferocious storms across the Taiwan Strait’ or warning of ‘dark clouds’. All this shock-and-awe is basically to impress (and, reassure) the local constituents on the Chinese mainland that Xi Jinping is firmly in control and winning the war of wits. The fact that Taiwan’s desire for so-called ‘unification’ is at a record low with the recent rise of tensions would not be lost on Beijing.
Public pride and opinion in Taiwan are pricked by insinuations of Chinese ‘invasion’ and a solid majority expresses an open desire to fight back – the Chinese claim of there being a small group of Taiwanese ‘separatists’ is simply not true.
Under the nationalist Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen, the population of 23 million is hardening its stance towards Chinese posturing, and Beijing would recognise the ground drift. Recent visuals and news from Hongkong, Xinjiang province and Tibet trouble the wary Taiwanese even more. The ground conditions are simply not ripe for a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, and Xi Jinping would know it best.
Expectedly, even the Pentagon has confirmed its assessment that China will not invade Taiwan for now, even though the tense drama of Chinese military drills around the islands, missiles and fighter planes flying across median lines, tactical blockades and sanctions, etc, will continue.
But there will be limits to the Chinese theatrics, as the Taiwan Strait is critical to the global economy and cannot be hostage to ‘manufactured’ hostility beyond a point.
'Know How to Use What You Know'
Beyond lessons from recent global events, China’s own memory of the consequences of the wounded Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the summer of 2020, or of the bloody Sino-Vietnam War of 1978 would guide it.
Incrementalism may still be worth a try, but a full-on invasion, not so much. However, with Taiwan, given the geographical context, perhaps even that is not feasible.
The killing of Zawahiri, the stalemate in Ukraine, the Indo-Chinese face-off, the Middle Eastern impasse or even the killing fields of Afghanistan are pointers enough for the Chinese to nuance and calibrate their reaction, well short of an invasion. More importantly, that course of action is in line with Han Fei’s wisdom – “know how to use what you know” – perfectly and deceitfully, as always.
(Lt Gen Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is a former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands & Puducherry. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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